My region-by-region predictions
Duke (West) and Kansas (Southwest) just have too much firepower for region foes
Florida will overcome Butler's magic in the Southeast and book a trip to Houston
The East may be the toughest region, but Ohio St. has a big experience advantage
If this week is anything like last week, then we are one lucky group of Hoopheads. The first three rounds were chock-full of great performances, exciting finishes and all kinds of crazy plays. Last week I predicted we'd see the kind of surprising results we've come to expect from this season. This week, however, I peered into my crystal ball and envisioned a return to form. Here's how it will all play out.
UCONN VS. SAN DIEGO STATE
Thursday, 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
If you're one of the many viewers who watched San Diego State play for the first time last weekend, you probably came away underwhelmed. But that's just how the Aztecs roll. They don't play exciting basketball, they just score more points than the other team. The problem here is that they're playing a team that can really score a lot of points. UConn is slower than you might think (the Huskies are ranked 205th in America in tempo), but UConn is ranked 14th nationally in offensive efficiency and the Huskies average more than 73 points per game. San Diego State is used to having a considerable advantage on the front line, but with the way Alex Oriakhi has been pounding the glass (23 total boards in wins over Bucknell and Cincinnati), that battle will probably be a wash. And for all the talk about Kemba Walker's scoring numbers, the area where he really excels is leadership. That has enabled his freshmen running mates to gain confidence with each passing victory. The Aztecs will no doubt have a huge fan contingent in Anaheim, but that won't be enough to keep Kemba from leading his team to one more big win.
UConn 70, San Diego State 61
ARIZONA VS. DUKE
Thursday, 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Quick: Who is the best player remaining in the NCAA tournament? Jimmer? Nolan? Jared? Kemba? Many would argue it's Derrick Williams, Arizona's sensational 6-foot-8 sophomore. During Arizona's win over Texas, Williams demonstrated my adage that a great player knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Williams was rusty offensively (4-for-14 shooting, including 0-for-6 in the first half), yet he still attempted 15 free throws and grabbed nine rebounds. Oh yeah, he also converted the game-winning three-point play. Nobody can stop Williams, but Duke has several defenders, most notably Kyle Singler, who have the potential to keep him from going crazy. On the flip side, I think the Wildcats' guards will have a hard time dealing with Duke's defensive pressure, especially after Kyrie Irving has a few practices under his belt. If Duke falls in love with the three-pointer again that would be bad news for the Blue Devils, but I'm guessing they learned the perils of doing that from their shaky finish against Michigan, when they hoisted 20 three-pointers and made only five.
Duke 82, Arizona 76
REGIONAL FINAL: DUKE VS. UCONN
If Irving weren't playing in this game, I would probably go with UConn, even though I picked Duke to make the Final Four in my original bracket before the team announced Irving's return. It's obvious that UConn is showing no ill effects from its epic five-games-in-five-days dash to the Big East championship. I don't think Irving will be back to where he was before he got hurt, but I do think his presence, especially on the defensive end, will be the difference. These teams have comparable talent, but Duke has a strong edge in experience. The Plumlee brothers will have to play like men, but Coach K's teams tend to rise to the occasion in March.
Duke 79, UConn 77 (OT)
BYU VS. FLORIDA
Thursday, 7:27 p.m. ET, TBS
If this game is as entertaining as last year's first-round, double-overtime clash that BYU won 99-92, then it will truly be can't-miss TV. I revisited the box score from that game, and aside from The Jimmer's 37 points, two things jumped out at me. First, BYU got 26 points off the bench from 6-1 guard Michael Loyd Jr. Second, Florida point guard Erving Walker attempted 13 three-pointers (making three) and just one free throw. This time around, Loyd is no longer on BYU's roster (he was dismissed last spring for multiple rules violations), and Walker is a totally different player. To wit, during Florida's wins last week over UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, Walker attempted a combined 11 threes and 15 free throws. Florida owned the boards in last year's game against BYU (17 offensive rebounds), and that advantage should be even more pronounced since the Gators are stronger up front and the Cougars are playing without their best rebounder from this season, Brandon Davies. Florida doesn't have the defensive wherewithal to shut down The Jimmer, but the Gators are a complete, mature and experienced team. Their whole is greater than the sum of BYU's parts.
Florida 79, BYU 74
BUTLER VS. WISCONSIN
Thursday, 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS
There are some things you just can't explain. Like Butler guard Shelvin Mack, who at one point this season was barely making 30 percent from three-point range, drilling seven of his 12 attempts from behind the arc in the third round against Pitt. Nor can you explain Nasir Robinson's foul on Matt Howard, which set up Howard's game-winning free throw. (I'll forever believe Robinson mistakenly believed Butler held the lead at that point.) And it's really hard to explain how Butler can play in four consecutive NCAA tournament games, including last year's Final Four, that were decided by a total of seven points. Wisconsin is a good team, a really good team, and the Badgers got an unexpected lift with the return of 6-6 sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz (a.k.a. Carrot Top) from injury. This is a game of great matchups: Mack vs. Jordan Taylor, Howard vs. Jon Leuer, Brad Stevens vs. Bo Ryan. Still, this feels like déjà vu all over again, and in the end the Badgers are no match for the Butler magic.
Butler 62, Wisconsin 61
REGIONAL FINAL: FLORIDA VS. BUTLER
This is a rematch of another classic first-round overtime game. In 2000, Florida beat Butler on a buzzer-beater by Mike Miller and went on to lose to Michigan State in the championship game. I see this contest taking on much the same narrative. Butler is a solid defensive team that is capable of limiting possessions and forcing Florida to make a big shot down the stretch. Once again, the Gators will have the best player on the floor in 6-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons, and we all know his history of buzzer-beating heroics.
Florida 66, Butler 63